Thursday, May 8, 2014

Elsa Maxwell, Cole Porter and Marijuana



"Come and see my collection of Turkish hookahs," says a character in Cole Porter's play "Du Barry Was a Lady," now on stage in San Francisco in a delightful adaptation starring Bruce Vilanch. Full of Porter's witty lyrics and beautiful melodies, the play was first produced on Broadway in 1939 starring Bert Lahr, Ethel Merman, and Betty Grable as the character who uttered the hookah line.

Porter and his set were no strangers to various delights. Starting in 1923, Cole and his wife Linda rented palazzos in Venice, including the Palazzo Rezzonico once inhabited by Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Joining them there was the famed hostess Elsa Maxwell, who invented the scavenger hunt and other enticements that brought the rich and famous together. With Maxwell spreading the word, prominent figures like Tallulah Bankhead, Noel Coward and Fanny Brice came to Venice's Lido shoreline to enjoy its daytime amenities and nightly parties.

"Hard drinking was commonplace at these festivities, as was the use of drugs of all kinds, including opium, cocaine, and hashish," wrote Porter's biographer Charles Schwartz, who added, "A greater sensualist than most of his friends...Cole never hesitated trying drugs or practically anything else for kicks while socializing." Indeed, Porter's song, "I Get a Kick Out of You" has the lyric "I get no kick from cocaine" (sometimes sung as "champagne").

The party was over in 1927 when police raided the Palazzo Rezzonico and found several local young men, including the son of the police chief, parading about in Linda Porter's dresses. Later, the principality of Monaco employed Maxwell's services to put it on the map as a tourist destination as she had done for the Lido. "Her imprimatur of social acceptability carried so much weight that the Waldorf Astoria gave her a suite rent-free when it opened in New York in 1931 at the height of the depression, hoping to attract rich clients because of her." (Schwartz)

While living in Los Angeles in 1944, Porter dated Bob Bray, a Marine from Montana who was friendly with Porter's longtime amour, choreographer Nelson Barclift. Porter's biographer William McBrien wrote that Bray and Barclift "were always high on marijuana" and that both came often to Porter's Brentwood home for lunch. According to McBrien, Porter's song "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To" was written for Barclift. In 1956, Porter contributed music and lyrics to "High Society," the musical version of "The Philadelphia Story" that opened with VIP Louis Armstrong and starred his pot-smoking buddy Bing Crosby.


Vilanch—who's written comedy bits for Bette Midler, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Roseanne Barr and Lily Tomlin, among many others—is something of a modern wit and bon vivant in the tradition of Porter and Coward. "He's given more great lines to celebrities than a Hollywood coke dealer," quipped Nathan Lane in Get Bruce, a 1999 documentary on Vilanch now playing on Netflix.

Graduating from Ohio State with degrees in theatre and journalism during the turbulent 60s, Vilanch was brought out to Hollywood by studio executives looking to shape the new direction of film during the Easy Rider daze. "Everyone was wearing beads and paisley shirts," Vilanch recalls in the documentary, adding, "We were all sitting in a room together smoking dope and talking about the movies and I thought, 'This is a business I really want to be in.'"

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